Halak's impact on Blues' Cup chances
More and more, it's looking very wise to throw out the results of last season. It was such a strange campaign, shortened by a lockout and then crammed together by the calendar. It's especially true for goaltenders.
With the goalie jobs in Europe limited and training camp over in a blink, the usual routines were disrupted. It took time for guys to get their timing, it took time for others to get into ideal shape.
Safe to say neither ever quite happened for St. Louis Blues goalie Jaroslav Halak. He played in just 16 NHL games last season, finishing with a .899 save percentage, a dramatic drop from the .926 he posted in 2011-12. Nobody was making Halak stop signs in St. Louis like we once saw in Montreal.
So the message from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock to both his goalies heading into 2013-14 was to forget last season. Wipe it away from your memory. It's a clean slate.
"You had to write it off," Hitchcock said when we chatted earlier this week. "You had to say, 'Hey listen, this was an anomaly, this isn't a normal season.' We had to figure out a way to just kind of relax and let everything form a new kind of formula this year."
Part of that new formula was improved conditioning. Halak missed time last season because of a groin injury, and was told by doctors that a better fitness level helped lower the recurrence rate of groin injuries with goalies. After last season's disappointing postseason, the coaching staff asked each player to do something in the summer above and beyond what they normally do in the offseason so that the Blues would return that much more improved as a team this season.
Halak made the decision to stay in St. Louis all summer long -- the first time in his NHL career he didn't return to Slovakia -- in order to raise his fitness level to where it needed to be. Working closely with Blues strength and conditioning coach Nelson Ayotte, Halak clearly held up his end of the deal.
"This is a really good example of a guy who has put himself in a good frame of mind. Physically and mentally. He's worked really hard to recover from the injury," Hitchcock said. "He's not tired during games. Not tired after games. It doesn't matter if it's a goalie, a defenseman or forward. Your fitness level has to be really, really high. He's done an unbelievable job."
The coaching staff is also seeing the same level of motivation from Halak that he brought when he first joined St. Louis after the Canadiens picked Carey Price over him despite Halak's playoff heroics.
"With Jaro, it's all about how much he wants it," Blues goalie coach Corey Hirsch said during a phone conversation Thursday morning. "I would say he caught that fire again, the fire that made him successful. That's probably the biggest thing."
The Blackhawks caught a glimpse of that fire Wednesday. It was only Game 3 of the Blues' season, so you can't overreact. There's still a long way to go. The best you can do at this point is gather more information about a team that some suspect is on the verge of putting together a very special campaign.
Heading into Wednesday's game, the Blues were 2-0, outscoring their opponents by a total of 11-2. But they'd done it against the Predators and Panthers, two teams that have managed only two wins through six games.
The reigning champs presented a fantastic information-gathering opportunity.
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